High Learning Agility: Success Through Uncomfortable Thinking

Businessman considers learning agility

Today’s recruiters and development staff are increasingly looking for candidates with high learning agility as a critical evaluation filter for new hires in executive roles. Many traditionalists in the field will still firmly state a belief that “leaders are made, not born”, but it is also true that today’s fast-paced world rewards executives who can learn quickly and adapt to changing situations and markets.

At Cornerstone International Group, we believe that corporations with a global reach need to be especially cognizant of learning agility traits during the retained executive search process. This includes a tolerance for fast-shifting trends and a willingness to embrace technological developments.

Agile Talent in Executive Search

According to Ralf Knegtmans of Cornerstone Amsterdam, author of the book Agile Talent, “selecting candidates on learning agility and adaptation quotient will become crucial in tomorrow’s world as companies need to constantly adjust or run the risk of becoming obsolete.”

In days past, traditional leadership thinking clung to a view that innovators and rule-breakers were dangerous, and even irresponsible. They were perceived as unmanageable. Their ability to think outside of bounds of standard organizational culture was an unwanted challenge to that culture.

However, we believe the people who defy common assumptions about how a business should be run are often the ones who are best equipped to succeed in times of rapid change, whether that be a time of extreme opportunity or deep crisis. Their methods may make associates uncomfortable, but that can often be because so few of their peers can make the mental leaps that they do. In fact, people with learning agility are distinguished by their comfort with being uncomfortable.

That zone of discomfort is where creative and original problem-solving takes place.  Agile learners are adept at using their discomfort and tolerance for short-term failure to create success in the long run.


Correlation Between Organizational Lifespans and Learning Agility

The average lifespan for a new business today is 10 years, versus the 45-year average that had defined company life spans for the previous 60 years. The reasons for this phenomenon are many, but a significant factor is that former industry leaders have been caught short when a disruptor came along and managed to alter or dominate their market for a brief period.

To deal with tighter, more streamlined competitors that quickly acclimate to or even revolutionize an industry, leadership needs to adapt. A dearth of employees with learning agility also correlates to the environment in which they work.  If a company’s culture is too entrenched and static, the people who can initiate change and guide others through those massive changes may not thrive or be trusted to do what is necessary.

There are some estimates that organizational change efforts fail at a rate of 70%, while organizations that need to adapt to a merger or acquisition fail at an even higher rate (75-80%). Finding and selecting leaders with the capacity for a high degree of learning agility is essential to addressing these trends.


How to Find and Select Agile Talent

According to Knegtmans, there are 9 steps that are critical to selecting agile talent. These 9 steps are broken down into 3 phases moving from Preparation to Selection to Verification, as outlined below:

  • Phase 1: Preparation
    • Take the context into account
    • Select based on ability, motivation, and identity
    • Make the selection objective and quantifiable
    • Use a weighted feedback form
  • Phase 2: Selection
    • Scan the candidate’s background
    • Exam the candidate’s learning ability
    • Get the candidate to leave his/her comfort zone
  • Phase 3
    • Carry out valid testing
    • Conduct meaningful reference checks

A disciplined and intentional selection filter for agile talent can lead to hiring executives who can both fit with the organizational culture and still push the organization towards growth.


The Need for Speed

This leads to the other essential traits of learning agility: flexibility and speed. In this context, speed means trying new approaches quickly, learning from the success or failure of that approach, then moving on if it is not workable. Flexibility is defined not only as the ability to change tactics or strategy, but also to be accepting of feedback, whether critical or positive. In the 2012 study by DeRue, Ashford and Meyers, preliminary findings revealed flexibility and speed as the two main traits of people possessing learning agility.


Learning Agility and Executive Coaching

In coaching leaders to develop learning agility, the outcomes should give the organization someone better equipped to learn in and across situations, facilitating a positive change in performance.  However, this needs to be done in an environment that supports the learning-agile individual.  It matters if the company’s culture and management support someone who may try new things and break a few rules.  That support can determine the outcome as much as anything else.


How Cornerstone Can Help

There are many programs and recruiting firms that work to find the best talent for your organization. As a global leader in executive coaching and retained recruitment, Cornerstone International Group helps organizations adapt to this time of accelerating and volatile change. If you’d like to talk with one of our consultants, please get in touch with us today.

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